I recently returned from a brief trip to New York. The purpose of the trip was to spend some time with friends before the holidays and to enjoy some holiday baking and celebrating.
So, Thursday morning, I packed Tandy and my belongings into Horatio the Honda and set my GPS to the City That Never Sleeps or, the City That Never Looks You In The Eye, to be more accurate.
Now, I’ve lived in a city for 9 out of the last 10 years. (Philly – 8, London – 1) I know that cities can be hectic and invasive and scary and exciting, sometimes all within the same block. And, yet, it still surprises me how each city takes on a personality of its own and, like any relationship, those personalities click with yours or they don’t.
I have always said that Philly is a city that talks to you. Whether it was my next door neighbor, Willy, who called at me from his front stoop to ask how my run went or a complete stranger finding out if my brother is, indeed, Cole Hamels. (He is not.) Philly is talkative, open, and expressive.
Philly’s openness in their opinion sharing is often viewed negatively, especially when it comes to our sports fans and hitchhiking robot curb stompings, but like most cities, Philly often means well. Our candor is based in passion, embodiment, and heart.
New York, on the other hand, has always seemed very distant to me. Where Paris is a beautiful, antique chair you are allowed to appreciate but never sit in, New York has always felt like a modern art sculpture. It’s dirty and gritty and polished and carefully planned all at the same time. Some people “get it,” some don’t. Either way, YOU CANNOT TOUCH. You cannot belong.
I felt this was best encapsulated on a train ride into the city from Astoria where I stayed. My best friend, Nick, and I have a tradition of looking at the Tiffany’s windows at Christmastime. It’s something we’ve shared since our time at university. It’s silly and frivolous, but it makes us happy to compare the displays to ones from years past and to dream about the day we can actually afford something inside.
As we sat on the train, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone on the train had their heads down, faces illuminated by their cell phones. Here we were, in one of the most diverse cities in the entire world, and not one person looked at each other nor did they ask for their life story (which does happen in Philly. Often.). There was no eye contact, no nods of greeting, no half-smiles of polite acceptance.
How can so many people be so close together and not acknowledge that any one else exists?
One of the first lessons I teach in my Intro to Theatre class is: WHY Theatre? Why do we need it? Why do we do it? Why is it still around? Why will it and other performance art continue?
One of the reasons I provide is that humans are naturally imitative. This theory or practice is called mimesis: people see something happen in society (or art or the media or their families) and they want to recreate that action.
Now, if you’re one of those people that say, “Nah! Not me! I’m completely independent from everyone. I’m off the grid. I’m the opposite of basic…”, you’re wrong. We all do it. Babies do it. Adults do it. We pick up words or phrases that are said by those closest to us. Our bodies naturally fall into rhythm with the people we’re around. I yawn, you yawn, we all yawn. Imitating those around us is our natural state. It builds cohesion, it unifies us, it creates a team when there was once an individual. It strengthens us when used actively: for protection, for aggression, for love.
So, when I see train cars and sidewalks full of bent-necked commuters, craning at their various social medias and photos or blocking out the natural rhythms of the world around them with their earbuds filled with private music, I am not surprised. All it took was one before others would follow suit. All it took was one to silence the world around them with white plastic headphones shoved directly into their ear canals. All it took was one to divert their eyes from the young mother and her small child to their screen filled with photos of their friends’ small children.
All it took was one.
Growing up, the little neighborhood I lived in was an open playground. There was no lawn unexplored, no trail left un-biked, no tree left un-climbed. Video games were around, sure, but to a much lesser extent than they are now. My brother and I preferred the outdoors, huge games of Capture the Flag in various neighbors’ backyards and traipsing here and there in the woods. No neighbor shooed us away. The world was open to us, everyone knew us, and we knew everyone.
Now, living in that same neighborhood, I’m shocked at how insular it has become, how closed off. There is an occasional child on a bike, but now parents drive their child the 1000 feet to the bus stop and wait in idling cars until the bus comes, avoiding conversations with the other parents and their children.
We have all the means in the world for communication: Facebook, texting, e-mail, something called Snapchat, which I, for the life of me, can’t figure out. And yet, with all of these ways of communication, it seems that we’re doing less and less of it. We may be talking more, but are we actually communicating?
All it takes is one.
All it takes is for one person to put down their phone, silence the TV, open their front door. All it takes is for one person to remove their ear buds and allow a conversation to happen. All it takes is for one person to allow themselves to be vulnerable: no agenda, no screen. All it takes is for one to be present for a change to occur.
All it takes is one.
Which one will you be?